ROME – After receiving harsh backlash from the Vatican for what they said were “defamatory” insinuations against the late Pope John Paul II made on national television, the brother of a missing Italian teen has appeared to distance himself from those statements.
The row exploded after Pietro Orlandi – brother of Emanuela Orlandi, the daughter of a Vatican employee who disappeared in 1983 while on her way back from a music lesson – spent eight hours with Vatican prosecutors discussing the case along with his lawyer, Laura Sgrò.
Earlier this year the Vatican’s Promoter of Justice, its prosecutor’s office, reopened the case into Emanuela’s disappearance. That decision coincided with a decision by the Italian Parliament to reopen a parliamentary commission of inquest into what has become Italy’s most famous cold case.
The decision also comes in the wake of the airing of a popular new Netflix series, “Vatican Girl,” which explores the Orlandi case and delves into the various conspiracies that have surrounded it since the beginning.
Over the past 40 years, Emanuela’s disappearance has become one of the Vatican and Italy’s most enduring mysteries, and it has become associated with various conspiracy theories, with some linking it to the plot to kill John Paul II, Vatican financial scandals, and prominent Italian mobsters.
The Netflix docu-series on her case closes with the alleged new testimony of a friend of Emanuela’s who said that a week before she had disappeared, she had confided that a high-ranking Vatican official had been sexually harassing her.
Emanuela’s brother, Pietro Orlandi, has long held that the Vatican knows more than it is letting on.
During his interrogation with Vatican prosecutors Tuesday, Orlandi provided an audiotape containing a statement from an alleged mobster saying the late Saint Pope John Paul II used to go out at night with some monsignors in tow to harass and molest underage girls.
Orlandi, after his meeting with Vatican prosecutors, later gave an interview to Italy’s La7 television network in which he played that excerpt of the tape live.
The remarks on the tape, and Orlandi’s decision to play the audio on national television despite having spoken with Vatican prosecutors mere hours earlier, was heavily criticized by several top Vatican personalities.
In a statement defending Orlandi’s actions, Sgrò, who was with him for his interrogation, said Orlandi welcomed Pope Francis’s desire to “shed full light” on his sister’s case, and that to this end, he wanted to “share with investigators all the information in his possession. Everything, nothing excluded.”
“With this in mind, he made available to the Promoter of Justice everything he knows, even the most inconvenient facts, learned over the years, obviously leaving the evaluations and necessary verifications to the investigators,” Sgrò said.
She insisted that Orlandi “did not intend to make accusations against any person,” and that his only request was that “the search for the truth be unconditional.”
Her statement comes after the Vatican’s editorial director, Andrea Tornielli, published an article in the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, blasting both the recording and Orlandi’s decision to air it on national television.
“Think what would happen if someone had gone on television to affirm, on the basis of ‘hearsay’ from an anonymous source and without the shred of [evidence] or even a third-hand testimony, that your father or grandfather left the house at night together with some ‘snack buddies’ to harass underage girls,” Tornielli said.
If that person had a universally esteemed reputation, “Would we not have read, perhaps, comments and editorials indignant at the unspeakable way in which the good reputation of this great man, loved by so many, has been harmed?” he asked.
Tornielli noted that when the tape was played, “Everything was presented as credible, accompanied by some winking smiles, as if they were talking about an open secret.”
“Evidence? None. Clues? Least of all. Witnesses at least of second or third hand? Not even the shadow. Only anonymous defamatory accusations,” he said.
Calling the episode “madness,” Tornielli insisted that he is not saying this because John Paul II is a saint or because he was pope, but because it is a “media massacre” that “saddens and dismays by wounding the hearts of millions of believers and non-believers.”
Indicating the potential for legal action, Tornielli said, “The defamation must be denounced because it is unworthy of a civilized country to treat any person in this way, living or dead, whether cleric, layman, pope.”
“It is sacrosanct that a 360-degree investigation be undertaken to seek the truth about the disappearance of Emanuela,” he said, but insisted that “no one deserves to be defamed in this way, without even a trace of evidence, based on the rumors of some unknown character from the criminal underworld or some sleazy anonymous comment broadcast on TV.”
In her statement Friday, Sgrò said Orlandi’s actions were misinterpreted, and that Orlandi “regrets that some people have extrapolated some phrases, manipulating the big picture of his statements.”
“He is also sorry that, among those who accuse him in the press of harming the memory of those who are no longer here, there are some who, contacted numerous times over the years by Mr. Orlandi, are always removed from a sincere and authentic conversation with him,” she said.
The reference was to Polish Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the former archbishop of Krakow and former longtime secretary to John Paul II.
In a statement published after Orlandi aired the videotape, Dziwisz said the accusations in the audio consist of “very rash statements, but it would be more accurate to immediately say ignorable insinuations.”
He said Emanuela’s disappearance was “distressing,” and voiced hope that the case, including current investigations, would be freed “from the maelstrom of misdirection, mythomanias, and profiteering” that have characterized the four-decade search for the truth thus far.
“It hardly needs to be said that the aforementioned insinuations, which are supposed to have originated from elusive circles of the Roman underworld, which are now given semblance of pseudo-presentability, are in reality ranting accusations, false from beginning to end, unrealistic, laughable border on comical if they weren’t tragic, indeed criminal themselves,” Dziwisz said.
What happened to Emanuela is a “gigantic crime,” he said, but insisted that it is equally criminal “to profit from it with uncontrollable ravings, aimed at discrediting people and environments worthy of universal esteem until proven otherwise.”
Dziwisz said he shares in the family’s pain, but insisted that as John Paul II’s secretary, it was his duty to set the record straight.
John Paul II, he said, “took charge of the affair” from the beginning. “He acted and made others act so that it had a happy outcome; he never encouraged actions of concealment of any kind, but he always manifested affection, closeness, and help in most different ways to Emanuela’s family.”
Dziwisz voiced his hope that inquiries would progress with “correctness on the part of all actors.”
He also suggested that legal action ought to be taken, voicing his hope that “Italy, the universal cradle of law, will be able with its legal system to supervise the right to a good reputation of those who are no longer here today but who from above watches and intercedes.”
In her statement, Sgrò acknowledged Pope Francis’s efforts to solve the case by reopening the Vatican’s investigation, saying, “The search for the truth is an act of courage and the Holy Father has expressed his desire to follow this path with strength.”
She voiced hope that others would be equally committed, saying the family’s wish “is that this extraordinary, but dutiful act, does not only belong to His Holiness.”
Sgrò was called into the Vatican prosecutor’s office Saturday and was asked to provide information on from whom they acquired the audiotape with the remarks about John Paul II.
However, in a statement published after, Sgrò denied media reports, including an article posted on Vatican News, the Vatican’s official media platform, that she “refused” to give names, saying she was unable to disclose the source of the audiotape given the “professional secret” of attorney-client privilege.
The existence of privilege, “is a bulwark of truth itself and to attack it means wanting to prevent a lawyer from being able to make their own contribution to the truth. To attack privilege is to attack the free and independent search for the truth,” she said, and accused the Vatican of attempting to pressure her into breaking privilege.
She closed reiterating her previous statement that Orlandi “never accused His Holiness John Paul II of anything and no person I represent has ever done so. He asked for a deepening of the facts provided to him.”
In response to Sgrò’s statement and her assertion that the article published on Vatican News was incorrect, Tornielli said that after Sgrò’s denial of the article’s claims, he went to the Vatican prosecutor’s office to clarify the facts.
After speaking with them, Tornielli said that “I can confirm that what Vatican News reported regarding the statements made about John Paul II, on television, and the testimony given before the Vatican Promoter of Justice, is exactly true.”
“Neither Pietro Orlandi nor his lawyer Laura Sgrò have decided to provide the Promoter with the names or useful elements regarding the sources of these statements and their credibility. It would have been essential for the Vatican judiciary to know the source of the rumors reported by Orlandi. Unfortunately this did not happen,” he said.
Tornielli denied that the Vatican News article was pressuring Sgrò to break privilege, as she asserted, saying the accusation was false and that the task of Vatican News “is limited to reporting the facts in an objective and transparent way.”
He noted that Sgrò had been asking for a meeting with Vatican prosecutors since January in order to personally deliver documents of interest.
However, to date “the Promoter of Justice has not recieved any name or useful element regarding the accusations directed at Pope Wojtyla, as was correctly stated in the headline and text of the article in Vatican News,” he said.
This article has been updated with information pertaining to Laura Sgrò’s meeting with Vatican prosecutors Saturday morning and Vatican Editorial Director Andrea Tornielli’s response to her subsequent statement.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen